Welcome to Women Speak Out…

Women Speak Out is a UK-based feminist discussion project. Its aim is to get women’s views on a variety of topics, so as to build a picture of the key issues concerning women and the current nature of feminism.

Throughout 2010 we held informal round table discussions with women in cities across the country to find out: What most concerns you? Is ‘now’ a good time to be a woman? What does feminism mean to you? and more.

We then produced a booklet which documents the discussions we had. You can download a copy of the booklet (PDF document) here: Women Speak Out booklet 2010 – 11

But we don’t want to stop here! We want women in more cities and towns across the country (particularly in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) to set up their own Women Speak Out-style discussions so we can continue to build a comprehensive picture of feminism across the UK on this blog. Please click here for details on how to do this.

Women Speak Out discussions are an opportunity for women to share their views and experiences face-to-face in an informal atmosphere. A lot of communication between feminists these days takes place online, but we still feel there’s value in meeting up and talking in person with other women. Our discussions are a form of consciousness-raising, creating a space for women to listen to each other, express themselves and work out what they think about things.

In the meantime, we hope you find reading our discussions inspiring and that they’ll get you thinking about how being a woman affects our lives and what we can do to change things to improve women’s equality and freedom.

And if you want to get involved in any way, or would like further info, please get in touch. You can leave your comments and questions by clicking on ‘Leave a Comment’ above.

Women Speak Out in… Bristol

November 27 2010, Bristol University Student Union

We recently held a Women Speak Out discussion workshop at the Bristol University Feminism Conference, organised by the Feminist Society.

Over 70 people attended the conference, providing further evidence of students’ increasing engagement with feminism. Feminism also has a strong presence off campus in Bristol with the Bristol Feminist Network; Bristol Fawcett group; Bristol Rape Crisis, and One25. These organisations were also at the conference, galvanising further feminist debate and action within the city.

We received a warm and enthusiastic welcome from the organisers and got a good discussion going with a group of students all keen to share their thoughts on what it means to be a woman today and to discuss and ask questions about feminism.

Joining us was Tessa, one of the conference organisers, along with Laura; Isabel; Steph; Abbey; Shruti; Alessandra, and our first male participant, Luke.

Is ‘now’ a good time to be a woman?

Laura: More and more women see themselves through the male gaze.  Women are portrayed by many as a commodity.

Tessa: There’s this myth of empowerment surrounding the commodification of sex now. We have more rights in law, but women are sold as sex objects more. For example, lapdancing – my ideas on it aren’t fully formed, but I don’t think it’s empowering for women. And whilst things like prostitution and porn have always been around, they’re now more accessible, especially to young women.

Shruti: So many women knowingly or unknowingly subscribe to the idea that they’re different from men and that there’s a particular way to be a woman.

Steph: There’s a certain masculine, macho culture in Latin America which some women embrace.

Representations of women in the media, how women are increasingly portrayed and ‘sold’ as sex objects, and perceive themselves through a ‘male gaze’ seemed to be of particular concern to this group of young feminists. Though they were aware tackling these issues is not without its problems:

Laura: What about the women who produce porn and who enjoy appearing in it?

Isabel: Ideologically I’m against censorship, so I don’t think we can ban porn, but we need to discuss these issues, and there are groups such as the Anti Porn Men project, and stuff like that all helps to challenge it.

When did you realise sexism still exists?

Abbey: I was 10 or 11 years old. I have two younger brothers and I was always expected to help out with the housework whilst my brothers weren’t, but I was always told that was because I was older than them. However, when they got older they still weren’t doing it, and when I pointed this out to my mum she said: ‘There’s some things in life you just have to accept’.

Luke: Until I started university I thought sexism was dead, that equality had been achieved.  But actually, you don’t have to look far to find sexism.  I can find racism in the newspapers, but I have to look for it.  With sexism, just turn to page three.

Isabel: There’s so much pseudo-science.  If a child shows engineering ability, is it because they were born a boy or because they were given a certain toy?

Luke: My niece started school recently, and she now has much more fixed ideas about gender.  She wants to wear pink, and she even asked why I have long hair.  But her younger brother hasn’t started school yet and so he still wants to wear dresses like his big sister.

On negative stereotypes of feminism

Tessa: At the Freshers’ Fayre, one male student came up to the Feminist Society stall and said what we do is ‘disgusting’. Yet once we’d explained what we were about, he signed up!

Steph: I think the word ‘feminism’ itself can be off-putting, and if we changed the word, more people would get on board, as they agree with the idea of equality, they just don’t like the word ‘feminism’.  If I say I’m an equalist then they’re like, ‘oh, ok’.

Isabel: It’s not just the word.  If there was a new word then they’d attach the same connotations to it.

Luke: When I told my male friends I was attending a feminism conference, they laughed, but I said, you wouldn’t laugh if I was going to an anti-racism conference, so why a feminist one? Sexism is still far more acceptable than racism these days, there’s some things you can’t get away with saying about a person’s race, but you can about women.

We wondered why sexist ideas about women still seem to be excused on the basis of there being a biological difference between females and males, whilst racist ideas of white people being superior to black people based on their biological difference have been debunked and are no longer largely tolerated.

Luke: The abolitionist and anti-slavery movements were able to put an end to the biological arguments for racism, so what does feminism need to do when it comes to sexism?

On feminism and its relationship to other politics

Is feminism necessarily a left-wing politics or is there a case for engaging with more traditional right-wing perspectives? Left-wing politics has traditionally been about working for a radical restructuring of society, whilst more liberal and right-wing traditions are more individualist and concerned with making changes within the current social structure.

Shruti: I identify as left-wing, but listening to Judith Orr speak earlier (at the conference), I didn’t like how she talked about ‘Tory feminists’ and not wanting anything to do with them. There seems to be this closed-mindedness in feminism around political labels, but I think we should be listening to women with different political beliefs to our own.

Luke: I think feminism and left-wing politics are more companionable. I believe that equality should be state-led.  If you leave things to the market then it will be bad for women.

We then had some discussion about the extent to which we thought the state should have a role to play in securing women’s equality and whether legislative change is ever enough. Shruti and Luke in particular seemed to think more radical change was needed and that feminism involves changing the fundamental structures of society.

Luke: I don’t think changing things within the system is enough. Women need support from the state top down, but change also needs to happen from the bottom up.  

Alessandra: What is radical feminism?

Shruti: Radical means to get to the root of the problem.

Alessandra: Aren’t all feminisms trying to get to the root in different ways?

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Now we want to hear from you! Feel free to leave your comments in response to anything we discussed or any other issue by clicking on ‘Leave a Comment’ above, and also don’t forget to take part in our polls!

We’re planning on publishing a Women Speak Out booklet and hope to include comments and poll results from this blog alongside the quotes from our discussions, so it would be great to get more of your views!

Or why not think about setting up your own Women Speak Out-style discussion in your city or town and tell us about so we can include it on the blog? Click here to find out more.

Women Speak Out in… Cambridge

October 30 2010, Cafe’ Nerro, Kings Parade

We recently stopped off in Cambridge where we settled down for a chat with Clare, a second-year English student at Cambridge University and member of Cambridge Feminist Society, and Hannah, a feminist blogger and activist from nearby Peterborough.

Feminism appears to be alive and well in Cambridge; in addition to the Feminist Society, there’s also the Cambridge University Student Union Women’s Campaign, and both groups were involved in organising the Reclaim the Night marches which have taken place in the city for the past two years.  Clare said feminism “is needed” in Cambridge and as soon as our conversation began with Clare’s thoughts on women in academia, we could see why…

On women in academia

Clare: There are male fellows who won’t supervise female students. They don’t think they should be there. The university doesn’t address the issue because these fellows tend to be older, prestigious academics, and rather than refusing to supervise women out right, they’re just not given women to supervise because it’s known they don’t want to. It’s more of a problem in some colleges than others and the women’s campaign has tried to tackle it, but because it’s the older fellows with the most prestige, it’s difficult to get anything done about it.

I do think that academia is unequal in other ways.  For example, in English, more men than women get Firsts, despite the fact that there are more women than men on the course.

When did you become a feminist?

Clare: I was 18 and it was during an English class. A male teacher was talking about critical perspectives, and asked how many of us called ourselves feminists. No one put their hand up, and he said: “that’s a shame, because I think that any rational person should be a feminist”. And it stuck in my mind. Before that, I was an ‘I’m not a feminist, but…’ feminist, but after that I felt I should call myself a feminist.

Hannah: I started identifying as a feminist at university, and seeing all the sexist culture on campus and the attitudes of some male students. Feminism has affected how I think about things and see the world.

Now, as I’ve got older, issues of employment and finance concern me, I also got married and am a Christian, and feminism has affected this too.

Is now a good time to be a woman?

Clare: Yes, I think it is, particularly in the West. But there’s still a central block, where some things aren’t recognised by wider society. Things seemed to stop progressing about 20 years ago; if events had taken a different path then we would be in a better position now. Some things seem to have gone backward, particularly in terms of how women perceive themselves, and what about the sexualisation of young girls?

On gender stereotypes

We talked about how society is still largely segregated in terms of gender and how society’s ideas of ‘what a boy is’ and ‘what a girl is’ seem to have got more pronounced, particularly when it comes to selling and marketing toys and other products to children. 

Hannah: Everything is pink for girls. There’s even a pink “princess bible” story book for girls, with a blue “mighty warriors” book for boys. The tagline for the girl’s book is: “all little girls want to be a princess and give their heart to their hero”. And this carries into adulthood, where phones are divided into normal phones and then there are phones for girls which are pink. I went to get a phone upgrade recently, and I didn’t know what I wanted, so the salesperson in the shop suggested a pink phone. He must have seen my face, because he then said, “or there are other colours”.

On women in literature

Clare: There’s a problem with female characters in literature. Look at Dracula – the female character’s main selling point was that she had the brain of a man. I used to read a lot of Tamora Pierce because she had real female characters in her books.

On the differences between men and women

Clare: Biologically there are differences, but it’s more like a sliding scale than exclusive groups.

Hannah: It starts early on – people go, “oh, he’s a proper little boy” before a child can talk, even before it’s born!

Jessica: Why should male and female brains be different?

On gender roles in the family

Hannah: My husband is really supportive. My parents-in-law have accused me of being selfish about my career in the past, basically because I think my job is as important as my husband’s job. For my mother-in-law, her life is her family and it’s the man’s job to ‘provide’.

Michelle: The same for my mum, which was a spur for my feminism, as I don’t see being a full-time wife and mother as being particularly fulfilling, I want to do more.

Hannah: People talk about who wears the trousers. My husband mentioned to one of his work colleagues that he does housework, and the reaction was, “why do you let her tell you what to do?”

On men and feminism

Clare: More men than women turned up to our first meeting of the Feminist Society. And while that’s good, because I think we need men involved in feminism, it was also difficult, and made us consider how we wanted men involved, because sometimes I thought that they were dominating the conversation. It’s barely perceptible, but because of the way we’re been brought up, men have a slight edge in discussion and women tend to defer to them.

Jessica: Like the edge that being at a public school gives you.  Just by living in a society in which to be male is to fit in with the norm, the average man acquires this slight rise in confidence, this slight edge.

Clare: I think feminism should be a movement led by women, and we should have our own spaces.

On religion and feminism

Hannah: There can definitely be a conflict between religion and feminism and I went through a period of disillusionment with the Church and how it fits women into boxes.  My in-laws believe in male headship – that the man is the head of the household, of relationships and in anything related to the church. My sister-in-law’s wedding vows included vows about recognising that her place was in submission, while her husband’s vows were about loving leadership. Many churches have a problem with the place of women. People do save their first kiss for marriage, but there’s no basis for that in the bible, it’s just been made up as a response to what some Christians see as the problems of contemporary ‘dating’ culture.

However, Hannah has been able to reconcile her Christianity with her feminism.

Hannah: My beliefs were reconciled by finding a supportive church, where women are in leadership positions, and not just running the Sunday school and serving tea and coffee. My church is supportive of women’s choices; for example one woman I know who attends has no interest in getting married or having children and this is accepted. After looking at different interpretations of scripture it also became clear to me that Jesus did not teach inequality and that the church should not place restrictions on what women can do.

On stereotypes of feminism

Clare: At the university Freshers’ Fayre, a lot of people would walk by the Feminist Society stand and giggle. One male student stopped to ask what we did, clearly expecting extreme anti-man behaviour. When I explained, about the Reclaim the Night march we did, and how we want to tackle things such as violence against women and making the streets safer, he replied, “well, that’s just common sense isn’t it?”

Hannah: Women are sold the stereotype of feminism as a bad image. Women are not equal partners. Most of my friends see feminism as a silly thing, something to make fun of, but they agree with the views. So to meet other feminists, I tend to go to a lot of feminist events, as there’s no activist scene in Peterborough.

Hannah: Peterborough is a city with a lot of   social problems, higher levels of poverty than average, frequent news reports of violence against women, and low attainment levels in schools.

Michelle: So isn’t it in places such as Peterborough, where women may feel more isolated, that feminism should have more of a presence, than for example, in Manchester or London? I live in Leicester which sounds similar to Peterborough, and I don’t doubt there is work being done at the community-level, but it’s perhaps not being done in the name of ‘feminism’?

Then just as we were leaving…

… we were joined by another woman, Beth from London, who having overheard our conversation, was keen to know more. Beth is thinking about studying for an MPhil in Gender Studies at Cambridge and currently volunteers for Refuge, the domestic violence charity. The impact of public spending cuts on this service was of particular concern to Beth and she mentioned the importance of “feminisms, not feminism.” After filling her in about Women Speak Out, she declared we had “made her day”!

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Now we want to hear from you. Feel free to leave your comments in response to anything we discussed or any other issue by clicking on ‘Leave a Comment’ above, and also don’t forget to take part in our polls!

We’re planning on publishing a Women Speak Out booklet and hope to include comments and poll results from this blog alongside the quotes from our discussions, so it would be great to get more of your views!

Another poll!

So, here’s a new poll for you.  Tell us which of the four answers you most closely identify with…

Women Speak Out in… Manchester

23 September 2010, The Pankhurst Centre Pankhurst Centre, Manchester

After a bit of a break, Women Speak Out set off again, this time to Manchester.

Joining us at The Pankhurst Centre (former home of the female suffrage campaigners and now a community centre for women’s groups), was Rebecca, who works with women exiting prostitution; Sam and Louise, organisers of Manchester’s forthcoming Million Women Rise march & members of Manchester Feminist Network; Caroline, who works at a hostel for young homeless people; Joan, an active feminist in the ‘70s when living in Sheffield and now a member of Manchester Women’s Design Group, who promote women’s equality in the design of the built environment; Beverley, a single mum, and Lorraine, an arts and media graduate.

Again, we took in a whole range of topics and heard a variety of views and personal experiences. And just like the other cities we’ve visited so far, we found that Manchester is home to plenty of activity aimed at addressing women’s inequality.

What are you most concerned about?

Caroline: I’m most concerned about the lack of specialist services there are for young homeless women with alcohol problems. There’s a lot of support available for young men but no equivalent for women, and yet it’s needed. There’s currently no support there for young women.

What is feminism?

Joan: It gives women heart.

Beverley: What is a feminist?

Louise: Feminism to me is about equality between men and women.

Sam: Men and women are different, but they should be equal, they should be given the opportunity to do the same things.

Rebecca: I think you have to appreciate the differences between women.

Caroline: But I think women do have a common bond created by shared experiences.

Sam: What is equal anyway?  There’s such a difference between theory and practice.

Some of our participants felt some women did not call themselves feminists because it brought to mind stereotypes of ‘strident women’ they don’t want to be associated with. However, there was also a feeling that feminism could also be detached from the issues affecting many women’s lives, explaining other women’s choice not to identify as feminist.

Rebecca: A lot of feminism is quite elitist, especially that which comes out of the UK and USA. ‘Great feminist books’ don’t cover the day-to-day matters, job cuts, a living wage, access to welfare, disability benefits. Feminism doesn’t care about all women. A lot of the women I work with, exiting prostitution, don’t want to speak out, don’t want anything to do with feminism.

On prostitution

We spent some time discussing our views on prostitution, and listened as we welcomed Rebecca to share her experiences.

Rebecca: When I was working as a prostitute, I didn’t want anything to do with feminism, I didn’t think they understood. But when I saw a Reclaim the Night march go by in London a few years ago,  that planted a seed in my mind, that I don’t have to be in this brothel, I don’t have to die.

Rebecca felt a ‘sex-positive’ brand of feminism was currently dominating, particularly in Manchester.  

Rebecca: To make out that sex work is cosy and fine is basically to say that you don’t care that people die. But I don’t want to give up on those women, the women exiting prostitution.

Caroline: A lot of young women in care are groomed into prostitution. What would making prostitution legal do?

Rebecca: Prostitution is practically legal now anyway. If it’s legal then the police leave it all to the sex trade and that makes it more dangerous for the women working in it. Anything goes. And in countries where prostitution is legal, there’s more underground prostitution, it’s allowed to happen more. The sex industry has lots of money and it will always find loopholes, regardless of whether prostitution is legal or not.

Louise: We have to believe prostitution can end. What is it saying about humanity if we say we can’t end it?

Rebecca: People say they’re against slavery, trafficking, genocide, but won’t come out against prostitution. If you’re against slavery then you should be against prostitution.  Prostituted women are dying all the time.  I don’t believe in giving up on it.  I’m anti-slavery and anti-genocide. But I think there is a sea-change, a lot of people do disagree with prostitution, which is why I think the pro-prostitution lobby are so vocal at the moment, because it’s being given attention. There was even something on Women’s Hour about it recently.

Rebecca: There’s a difference between erotica and porn, I think we should have erotica. Porn is about power, about abusing the other person.  People talking about porn never mention the impact it has on the women starring in the porn – it’s always about the partners of people using porn.  But these women are going through hell, and in order to do it they drug themselves up or drink a lot, or just completely detach themselves.  If you can look at the women in the porn film as human beings then you won’t be able to watch the porn, you can’t be pro-porn, you’ll just see what they are going through for your pleasure.

Sam: And yet the media say that these women are empowered.

Rebecca: They think they are empowered.  At the time, they think they are happy hookers.  But I don’t know anyone who has exited the sex trade who is pro-prostitution.

On politics & the impact of government spending cuts

Rebecca: I’m an anarchist, I don’t believe any political party cares about helping prostituted women. I’m disillusioned with politics.

Caroline mentioned the government’s plans to stop income support for parents once their children reach school age, and how this would discriminate against women in particular.

Beverley: Who’s going to look after my kids when I’m at work then? I can’t leave them on their own to look after themselves. What jobs are there? I’m not going to be better off.

Cuts to specialist services for women were also mentioned, such as those supporting BME women experiencing domestic violence and how some women-only services were now having to extend their services to men.

On gender roles in the home

Louise: For a lot of my friends housework is uneven.  Men don’t do the ironing.  Or they’ll do the washing up and then say: “I did the washing up for you!”

Sam: When I was married, I always used to come home and make a drink for my husband, make the tea, wash up. It was only when I was ill my husband would offer to do the washing up, and then only because I was ill, not because it was his dishes that needed washing! If he did do something, then for weeks afterwards he’d say, “but I washed up for you” as if it was a big thing.

Rebecca: People think housework comes naturally to women.  It doesn’t.  I can’t do it.

Caroline: A lot of it is about the parents and what they teach the children.  The children pick up what the parents do.  It’s the social conditioning of society.

Joan: Like map-reading, it’s social conditioning.  I asked a friend of mine to navigate while I drove, and she thought she couldn’t do it because she’d always had men saying “tell me which direction now!”  But she could do it.

On toys for children

Joan: Divisions between the sexes are still there – look at the Argos catalogue, with sections for boys and girls.

Louise: I played a game with my little cousins at Christmas… it was a Bratz game, and as you moved round the board you were putting your lipstick on and doing your hair and clothes.  And the winner was the one who was best dressed for the party at the end!  Girls are being socialised at a younger and younger age to place a lot of value on their looks. But boys are given guns and violent stuff.

Beverley: When my son was younger, he loved pushing a doll around in his pram, and when we would go out, the looks we’d get off other women! People used to say, “oh, he’ll make a good dad one day”, and there’s some assumption he’ll be gay. Well, not necessarily, maybe he just likes playing with dolls.

Joan: It’s nurture from the cradle.  I heard that experiments have been done showing that people react to male and female babies differently.  They coo over girls more.

On careers

Louise: I used to be good at maths and physics at school but was never encouraged at these subjects so ended up doing social science at uni. Now I’m interested in subjects like woodwork and physics and wish I had thought about doing these when I was younger but it never even crossed my mind as these are not subjects that women are encouraged to do.

Joan: Women tend to take time off work.  I took about seven years off, but I have a friend who didn’t have children and she certainly thinks it was one of the things that got her further in her career.

Louise: Managers who are women are always seen as bitchy, but a male manager acting in the same way is praised.

On representations of women in the media

Louise: Women are fair game for any comments.  Sexist comments in the newspapers.

Lorraine: Talking about that new breakfast programme, Daybreak, they mention the male presenter’s skill and training, but just concentrate on the female presenter’s looks, even if she has similar experience.  

Louise: Programmes that are popular with young people today such as The Inbetweeners treat women as sex objects. This programme shows boys talking about how they can get girls into bed.

Joan: I saw a programme where some school boys were asked to look at some images of women’s breasts and pick which they preferred. They picked the perfect ones. It’s what boys expect, and girls see pictures of perfect breasts and think that’s what they have to be like.

On domestic violence

Joan: I think attitudes have improved, police attitudes seem to have done.

Beverley: The police didn’t do anything when I was experiencing domestic violence 20 years ago.

Although, Louise, an activist campaigning to tackle violence against women as part of the most recent resurgence of feminism, still thinks there’s a way to go.

Louise: There’s a lot of violence against women.  It hasn’t gone away.  I worked in a women’s refuge and I don’t think police attitudes have changed that much. A lot of the time the police don’t come, or if they do, they listen to the perpetrator.  I’ve called 999 for other women and the police don’t come.  They’re not trained properly. I took a call from a woman, who also happened to have mental health problems, and contacted the police for her, but they wouldn’t go to her house. I also rang the police about four men entering a house, it was only later I found out it was a brothel, and the police knew, which is perhaps why they didn’t bother to go round.

Jessica: So how do we get rid of it?  Do you just have to wait until the sexism is bred out?

Louise: It’s the little things that will change attitudes. We need to get talking to each other, other women, and just keep going. We have to believe we can change things, that we can make a difference. Even if the headlines in the newspapers suggest something else… I wish I’d brought a couple, there’s one which says: “Soldier seduced by 13-year-old Lolita” and another saying: “Lesbian paedophile grooms 13-year-old girl”, and the difference… this highlights how the media is male dominated and even where the media comes down harder on women but goes easy on men for committing exactly the same crime.

Rebecca: Domestic violence is about power.  Like rape, it’s not about sex.  It’s power.

Sam: Sexual violence is becoming the norm.  Many people seem to expect it now. 

Louise: Someone told me that her daughter was raped, and she was very matter of fact about it, as if it was an everyday thing and her daughter had to expect it because she wore short skirts…

Louise: You think back to some near misses.  At school all we were taught was that if we have sex we should wear a condom, myself and my friend were quite good at school and did what we were told, so when older men , about 7 years older wanted to sleep with us we would have sex with them and wear a condom, we were both still at school at this time. We believed everything they said when they said they loved us when really they were just trying to get us into bed. I wish someone had taught us at school that men use women for sex and lie to get women into bed because we would have listened just like we listened about wearing a condom.  We were completely unaware of any of this and looking back it is frightening at how close we could have been to being lured into the sex industry. 

Joan: Young men target girls.  They tell them they love them, and then the girls become dependent on them.  There was a Radio 4 programme about a girl who got involved with an older man… it was well done, tried to send a message to all the middle-class parents.  Teenagers are vulnerable, it’s that time of life, and these men groom them, tell them they love them, drive them about in their fast car, and then the girls can’t get out of the relationship.  The men say, “if you loved me you’d sleep with my friend” and then they pimp the girls out.  They threaten to kill the girl’s family if they say anything, and the girl is stuck.

Louise: I think schools have a vital role to play in educating young women about relationships and what domestic violence is. When I was younger, I only thought domestic violence meant hitting and swearing, but it’s not. Sex education in schools promotes safe sex, but it also needs to send messages about exploitation and being wary of older men.

On activism in Manchester

Louise: There has been a resurgence of feminism in Manchester. A few years ago I was a member of a group called North West Feminists, which was just a few of us, and then it trailed off… But now there’s Manchester Feminist Network and we get about 20 women to each meeting. There’s also The Riveters (the University of Manchester’s women’s group), who hold an annual Reclaim the Night march here.

Louise and Sam are involved in organising Million Women Rise Manchester, a women-only march to be held in the city on 10 October 2010 calling for an end to violence against women. It’s a regional sister march to the national march which has taken place in London around International Women’s Day for the past 3 years.

Louise: Million Women Rise Manchester partly emerged as a response to the city’s Reclaim the Night march, which is mixed-sex, and we felt there needed to be something for women-only. A group of women from Manchester went down on the coach to the London march, and we decided a similar protest was needed in Manchester.

Louise: I think marches such as Million Women Rise do have an effect, even just in bringing lots of different women together. I’ve met a lot of women through working on the campaign, and it allows you to forge connections with one another, and gives individual women the opportunity to support one another.

This year’s London march attracted 8,000 women and Sam and Louise are committed to building on the momentum, wanting as many women as possible to join them on 10 October in Manchester. If you’re interested in taking part, then visit the group’s Facebook page or e-mail: mwrmanchester@gmail.com.

In the meantime, please carry on the conversation by commenting on what we discussed by clicking on ‘Leave a Comment’ above. It would be great to hear from more women in Manchester, about the issues that are on your minds, and any work you are involved in with women in the city. So, why not speak out and put Manchester women on the map?

Poll? What poll…?

Poll?  What poll…?

Help us out at Women Speak Out by taking part in our polls.  We’ll have a new poll every month…maybe even more often.  This month, we’re asking about the differences between men and women.  What’s your view?

Women Speak Out in… Nottingham

09 July 2010, Nottingham Women’s Centre

Nottingham Women's Centre logo

We had a brilliant turn out at our most recent discussion in Nottingham.

Our participants included Melanie from Nottingham Community & Voluntary Service who is coordinating a network of local women’s organisations; Debbie, Emma, Lisa and Valerie from SHINE, a floating support service for women escaping domestic violence; Elly, Ursula, Shirley, Karen, Sally and Angela from Framework Supported Housing, an accommodation project for women 16 years and over; Anne from the City Council’s Community Equality Forum and Anette, Chief Executive of Nottingham Women’s Centre, highlighting the extensive and important network of women’s support services and groups that exist in the city.

Also joining in were Teodora and Eva, PhD students at the University of Nottingham and members of its Women’s Network who were equally enthusiastic about the growing tide of gender activism and awareness that has emerged in the city in recent years and who are currently organising a Feminism and Teaching Symposium to be held at the University next April. We also welcomed Trisha and Angie, who were keen to join in the opportunity to voice their views in the company of other women.

With such an enthusiastic and committed group of women, our discussion was a lively one, which took in a range of different topics.

To join in with the conversation, please share your comments by clicking on ‘leave a comment’ above.

The recession, budget and cuts

Nottingham has an extensive network of women’s support services and organisations, which Melanie supports through her work with Nottingham Community & Voluntary Service, and yet there are concerns these vital services are under threat from cuts in government spending, and this will have a hugely detrimental impact on the lives of women who use them.

Melanie: I’m angry about the fact that women are going to bear the brunt of the fallout from the financial mess we’re in and it worries me that we have a government with few female MPs to speak out for us. The same locally – who’s speaking up for women?  Women are underrepresented at the higher levels of local decision-making, for example in the city council and the PCT.

Karen: Women will be disproportionately hurt by the cuts. The jobs women do are the ones that are most likely to be cut, the caring jobs, nurses.

Valerie: I’m concerned that the cuts will not only affect women financially, but will cost lives, if there are cuts to support services. There has been a lot of funding put into domestic violence services for women over the past few years, but now vital services such as witness support are in danger of being cut.

Melanie: I think women’s refuges could be at risk.  I hear rumours of cuts, including my own job, but no one is sitting down and talking about how we could make the cuts we need to make and still protect the most vulnerable. I’m worried that an open debate about the impact of the cuts is not happening and it’s not going to happen until it’s too late.

On violence against women

Anne: One thing that has changed for the better over the past three decades has been the increase in awareness of issues such as domestic violence, child abuse and child sexual abuse. We have a lot of good support services for women in Nottingham.

Teodora: We have this hysteria over paedophilia, but paedophiles are seen as these ‘strange men’. It’s disconnected from the husbands, uncles, and fathers who are committing child sexual abuse and domestic violence in the home.

Teodora: Even amongst my feminist networks, rape is still spoken about on the abstract level, we don’t talk about our personal experiences of it.

Eva: Going out in the city centre at night can be a nightmare.

Teodora: I’ve been on the dance floor and had men drag me off.

On domestic roles

Valerie: Even though I go out to work, I also still have to keep the house clean and look after the kids because I’m a woman. I really think marriage can be like slavery. Why is it assumed that I should do the housework, just ‘cos I’ve got a vagina?  If I had someone doing all my cooking and cleaning for me, I wouldn’t want to give it up.

Melanie: Women are expected to do a double job.

Valerie: We perpetrate this – if a bloke is doing the washing up then I’d come in and go “oh, he’s doing the dishes for you”.

Angie: It’s that “for you” bit that’s the problem. 

Lisa: Like when he says “oh, I babysat for you” and it’s his own kid.

Ursula: It’s like the father whose wife has died and who brings up the kids alone, and everyone says “hasn’t he done well?”, but women do that all the time.

Valerie: There are a small percentage of men who’ll do their fair share but we still have a long way to go.

On children

Angie: Boys need to be educated to respect each other and other people.  I hear young boys talking, and am dismayed at the sexist attitudes they pick up.

Eva: I do feel sorry for teenage boys because they also experience a lot of peer pressure.

Ursula: There are a lot of good books for nursery and junior age children.

Sally: This should follow through in the teaching. School has to follow through and do non-gendered things.  But the girls still want to be princesses…

Karen: The teachers need to be aware of what they do, like the teacher who read a story about food and cooking and then told a little boy that he shouldn’t play with the toy kitchen because he was a boy.

Melanie: It starts so young, girls and boys being told that they’re different.  I mean, if you look in the Argos catalogue for a toy then it’s all divided into girls’ toys and boys’ toys.

It was also noted how much more segregated toy shops have become in selling certain toys to boys and others to girls and how we are still uncomfortable with giving children toys associated with the opposite sex to play with.

Melanie: Is it because we fear children will turn out gay? Now that homosexuality is more prominent, we may be more likely to think children could be gay, whereas a few years ago it wasn’t so much of an issue.

On relationships

Teodora: Relationships are still unequal. The old double standards are still there. Women aren’t expected to ask men out, men are expected to take the lead in relationships.

Eva: My male friends are quite blasé about the number of women they’ve slept with, but women who admit this are treated differently.

On the differences between men and women

Anette: There are differences between men and women.

Jessica: But there’s also huge overlap.

Trisha: And in between there is learned behaviour.

Anette: And there’s the stereotypes and the thing I really hate – the sexualisation of society.

Melanie: I heard someone speak recently about the different way men and women look at job adverts.  Men tend to see what they can do and think that they can learn the rest, but women tend to focus on the criteria they don’t meet.  It really resonated with me and I think that’s perhaps one of the things that holds us back.

Anette: I’ve worked for female managers, and some of them have been more aggressive than the male mangers.  Perhaps it’s to prove themselves.

Valerie: I’ve had good male managers.

Anette: I have no idea what it feels like to be a man.  I can’t put myself into the body of a man.

Valerie: I don’t walk around feeling “I’m a woman”.

Melanie: What’s a ‘woman’ supposed to feel like?

On stereotypes and the “norm”

Karen: I had blond hair for a while, and I found that I was treated differently.  With dark hair I’m taken seriously.

Melanie: We use stereotypes to help us make sense of the world.  But we should recognise this, should challenge ourselves not to make snap judgements. There needs to be more education around changing how people think, and this should start at school.

Shirley: We have to work people out and put them in boxes, we’re not comfortable with not being able to work out what someone’s sex or sexuality is.

Sally: Children want to conform.  My son doesn’t like football, and he had a hard time until he discovered he liked rugby.  The word “gay” is used as an insult and it reinforces the negativity.  Children use that word before they know what it means, they say “it’s so gay”.

Shirley: Say “it’s so het” back to them!

Teodora: There’s such a skewed perspective as to what is supposed to be normal.  Sharon Osbourne without make-up is deviant, even though that’s what normal women in their sixties look like.

On beauty & the sexualisation of young women

There was a general feeling amongst our group of women that things had got worse when it came to pressures to live up to narrow beauty ideals and a concern was shared over the increased sexualisation of younger women, mainly via the media.

Melanie: I watched The Sex Education Show recently, and some of the girls on the programme, when shown images of naked women, were so relieved to see what real women looked like.

Valerie: It concerns me when I hear the younger women I work with constantly talking about dieting and what they look like. There’s this pressure to be perfect.  It’s getting worse.

Melanie: Young girls have always dressed up in mum’s high heels. But the display of lad’s mags in supermarkets concerns me. There’s a very bad combination of sexualised clothing for young girls and the culture spread by lad’s mags.

Valerie: Porn is in the everyday attitudes we digest.  Clothing for young women looks more like a uniform for lap dancers.

Anette: In terms of what feminism fought for, I think we have gone backward.

Trisha: I feel much better in my own skin as an older woman. I felt more bombarded by the external world when I was younger. It’s a shame I couldn’t have felt more comfortable in myself when I was younger.

Anette: By the time you get to 50, it doesn’t matter to you so much.

On role models

Valerie: Young women aspire to different things.  One of the girls in my family wants to be a WAG.  She’s serious about it, spends her time at the clubs where footballers go, does her hair and her clothes all the time.  Won’t be long until there’s a GCSE in it!  But is it just the same as my generation?  My mother wanted me to be a secretary and marry my boss.

Elly: It’s buying into the celebrity culture and similar to the old idea that women should be ‘kept’ by a man.

Shirley: It’s making women dependent.

Karen: What happens when it goes wrong?

Melanie: I think the media have had a big part to play. Young women aspire to be like their role models, like Lady Gaga. But why in all of her videos does she have to be dancing around in her underwear?

Karen: Male sports stars or pop stars beat up their wives or are horrible to the people they’re supposed to love, but they’re allowed to get away with it because they’re heroes.

Anne: The media does have an effect on women’s aspirations. Look at the way the media always spitefully attacked every female minister in the Labour Government.

On careers and education

Valerie explained about her daughter going to a college open evening to find out more about business studies, but there was a general expectation by two of the male members of staff she approached that she’d want to do hair and beauty.

Shirley: Women are ousted from courses by being made to feel that they shouldn’t be there.

Elly: Discrimination doesn’t have to be blatant.  Look at the trainers and the teachers – what are they doing?  Are they giving girls the message that they shouldn’t be there?

Eva and Teodora were concerned with women’s experiences in higher education and academia. Although their department at Nottingham is very good, in academia more generally, they felt patriarchal structures and old boys networks were still very much alive. They also noted how feminism is largely absent from teaching, in terms of what is taught and how it’s taught, which they hope to explore in the symposium they are holding next Spring.

Teodora: Political theory is all about dead white males.  Women have to try twice as hard to do something new.  If a man comes up with a new approach then it’s edgy, but if a women does the same then no one wants to do it.

Melanie: Jobs which are generally done by men are more high-status.

Anne: The banking industry is very male-dominated and the stories you hear of sex discrimination in the industry are disgusting.

Teodora: I think class is still an important issue. It doesn’t matter how good a degree you get, you’re still more likely to get a good job if you’ve been privately educated and have the right connections. A lot of women leave university and take jobs they are overqualified for. Out of my friends, the male graduates have jobs in their fields, whilst a lot of women are working as waitresses or are unemployed. Male graduates seem to be able to stay at home, whilst women are made to feel guilty if they aren’t doing anything.

On history

Anne: There is currently an exhibition on in Nottingham of famous people from the city, and despite being curated by a woman, there are only three women in the exhibition. And yet there are lots of women in Nottingham’s history, there’s been a Women’s History walk in the city.

On feminism

Melanie: The f-word has many connotations, some of them negative.

Angie:  What about feminist men?  There are some out there.

Trisha: When I lived in Milan many years ago, there was a group of women who produced a magazine called Effe.  There, feminism was very political, more militant and generally different from the “freedom of the female” type of feminism in the UK at that time.  I felt that the women in Italy were a stage ahead, that they’d absorbed something important.  But it’s not a country where I could be at ease as a woman, and even now, even the new generation of Italian women are seen almost as second class citizens.  I feel better, feel more at ease in this country.

Trisha: I get annoyed at Miss or Mrs.  Why should anyone know?  I think all women should use Ms.

How do we change things?

Melanie: What power do we have to change things?

Shirley: A lot of women don’t have a voice, they don’t have a lot of confidence. After a while, you can start to think, “I can’t be bothered”, and you just continue to moan to your work colleagues. You can try and get women in positions of power on your side, but a lot of them have to be like men.

Karen: Women-only spaces are really important, so women have a space where they are free to just be and don’t have to worry about being stared at by men and can express themselves.

Elly: Just speaking to other women about things can have a positive effect because a woman can then leave feeling empowered. It can have a trickle down effect.

Shirley: We’re the converted.  How do you reach out to others?

Sally: Change has to start in school. Lots of kids don’t have role models. 

Teodora: We need to start having conversations with men too, it’s okay talking amongst ourselves, but we also need to educate men, feminism can help men become better people.

Anne: The City Council has an Older People’s Strategy but there is no consideration as to how older men and older women’s experiences are different. We need to get more focus on gender, and not just on this particular strategy but in everything.

Karen: Feminism has become irrelevant to young women.  We need to make feminism relevant to younger women and dispel the stereotypes. Not about being political, or hating men, but about being equal.

What do you think?

Please feel free to leave your comments and views on what we discussed by clicking on ‘leave a comment’ above. It would be really good to hear from more women living, working and studying in Nottingham about the issues affecting you and about the different groups and activities taking place which are supporting and championing women in the city.


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